Writing for NBC this week, the science journalist Erin Biba criticizes WeWork for taking its communal workplaces vegetarian, on the grounds that “it lets fossil fuel companies off the hook.” As if there’s only one hook.
It’s a weird argument, that we can only do one thing to fight climate change. A false choice. It’s like saying we shouldn’t try to prevent heart disease because we’re trying to cure cancer.
Of course, we can do both. Fight heart disease and cancer. Fight fossil fuels and animal agriculture.
Biba’s argument lets reality off the hook. It contributes to the dangerous fantasy that we can halt anthropogenic climate change without a lifestyle change, that we can emerge from this existential crisis into a solar-powered consumerist utopia where we can continue to treat the earth as both mother’s breast and open sewer, all its features and creatures mere objects for our increasingly voracious consumption.
Fundamentally we are making the same mistake whether we’re sucking carbon out of the ground and spewing it into the atmosphere or slaughtering animals by the billions and flushing them down the toilet to the sea. We have to clean up our relationship with our home.
Biba thinks we shouldn’t tackle animal agriculture because it only represents 15 to 18 percent of carbon emissions. The World Watch Institute audited that oft-repeated estimate a decade ago and found tons of omitted emissions, including undercounted methane, overlooked land use, and uncounted respiration from the 70 billion animals reared for slaughter each year. The institute reckons meat’s contribution is multiples higher.
Even if animal agriculture were only responsible for 15 to 18 percent of emissions, that’s more than 7 billion tons of CO2 per year, when our emissions need to be zero. By 2050 animal emissions are expected to double.
But animal agriculture doesn’t just produce carbon emissions; it also drives deforestation, collapsing the earth’s lungs, inhibiting the reabsorption of CO2.
Let’s say that we succeed in cleaning up the energy and transport sectors. Are we done? Not by a long shot. And we’ll have a harder time cleaning up agriculture then if we’re not allowed to confront it now without being accused of “letting fossil fuels off the hook.”
Why does Biba think there’s only one hook? She attributes the phrase to climate scientist Michael Mann, who concedes he doesn’t eat meat himself. Does Mann really think there’s only one hook? If we only chase one kind of polluter, aren’t we letting other polluters off of other hooks?
Should we repeal the Clean Water Act because it lets air polluters off the hook?
Biba also contends it’s wrong to take individual voluntary action—that Gandhi was wrong, I guess, about that whole ‘be the change’ thing—and that WeWork would be better off “turning to politics.” I’m not sure where a seasoned climate journalist gains such faith in politics. From the election of Al Gore? The Waxman-Markey Bill? The Clean Power Plan? The U.S. commitment to the Paris Agreement?
The solar and wind tax credits in effect today passed because they were bundled with a lift of the oil-export ban—in other words, because the bill lined the pockets of fossil-fuel companies. We’ve seen the biggest reductions in emissions not because of those renewables, primarily, but because of the displacement of coal by cheap natural gas from fracking. Again lining the pockets of fossil-fuel companies.
That’s not to say we should give up on political action. Political action succeeds when supported by massive voluntary action, like when Germans consented to pay five times more than us for electricity in order to bring down the global cost of solar panels, or when hundreds of thousands of Californians switched to electric cars and millions more demanded renewable energy.
Biba holds up voting as the ultimate political action against fossil fuels, but voting too is an individual voluntary action.
Political success needs not just voluntary action behind it but economic force, and economic force resides in our daily lives.
We can fight fossil fuels while taking public transit. We can fight fossil fuels while line-drying our clothes. We can fight fossil fuels while not buying stuff. We can fight fossil fuels while the thermostat’s off. And we can fight fossil fuels while abstaining from meat. These actions don’t weaken our political fight against fossil fuels. They give it everything we’ve got, the full force of our lives.
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